One quick Google search for the word "intern" and you will find a myriad of opinions, blog posts, and even the odd intern job posting. Most of the debate surrounds the topic of interns earning money, or in most cases the lack thereof. You will find the story of Barrie MPP Rod Jackson who replaced his paid intern with an unpaid one. There are lots of articles, mostly negative, towards Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg when she was seeking unpaid interns to work for her newly founded not-for-profit based on her book Lean In. Rick Mercer also recently chimed in on the issue in one of his famous rants.
I think the root of the issue is not necessarily paid versus unpaid, but whether companies actually value the contributions of an intern. If a company values the input and contributions of interns, they are much more likely to pay them. If they don't value their contributions, they are not likely to pay them and probably feel the experience the intern obtains is a worthwhile exchange for their services. To the latter, I would argue that every employee is also getting work experience and legally must be paid for these services. Why should interns be treated any differently?
The answer seems so simple, yet why do we still have tens of thousands of unpaid internships?
1. Old school and dated thinking
When I discussed this topic with a friend of mine, their immediate response was "when I was their age, I had an unpaid internship and paid my dues". While I understand this argument (I also had unpaid internships) it is also a very dated way of thinking. When we were younger we were not exiting school with $27,000+ in student debt. We could afford to take on an unpaid internship but with the escalating cost of education, that just isn't the case anymore. The concept of climbing the corporate ladder is completely foreign to this generation and they are much more willing to volunteer or start their own business where they at least get some true value.
2. Companies don't understand the value an intern can provide
Students add tremendous value to an organization - they are technically savvy, adapt quickly and provide a fresh outlook on the world. Many have traveled abroad and have seen things and places that older generations have never seen, thus allowing them to have a different point of view in a business world that now crosses all borders. They come from a generation that is about to surpass boomers as the largest consumer spending generation, thus making them your current and future customers. Interns can provide tremendous insight into how you engage and acquire people just like them as customers and employees. By 2017, millennials will make up over 50 per cent of the workforce, so understanding the mind-set of the millennial is a true competitive advantage. Interns, if used correctly, have a lot to offer. We saw this ourselves at yconic, where we hired several interns. I can honestly say that our company misses their energy, insight and contributions now that they are back at school. There was no question of whether or not these internships would be paid, because we expected them to add value to our business, and they did.
So what does all this mean?
If you are a student looking at taking an unpaid internship, I caution you that it is very likely that your contributions will not be valued and the experience will not be a good one for you. I suggest looking at other alternatives to get that experience, such as volunteering or perhaps an entrepreneurial venture, where you will be appreciated and have a real learning opportunity.
If you are an organization with unpaid internships, you should probably take a real look at the value of the work your interns provide. If you don't think their contributions are worth a paycheque, then you are much better off not having an internship at all; it is a lose/lose proposition. If you are an organization that feels work experience in exchange for free labour is a fair exchange, you probably fall into the category of "old school thinking" discussed above. I worry for your business. Attracting and retaining millennial talent will be critical to your success, but they will not want to work for you, and they won't hesitate telling the world why.